New ombudsperson hopes mediation will resolve complaints involving Canadian companies abroad

Lawyer Sheri Meyerhoffer lands “dream job” as Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Enterprise

New ombudsperson hopes mediation will resolve complaints involving Canadian companies abroad
Sheri Meyerhoffer is the country’s first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise.

Sitting in a classroom at the Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard University in 2017, Saskatchewan native and former oil patch lawyer Sheri Meyerhoffer heard her professor describe her dream job with the Canadian government. And she decided right then that her next big goal in life was to get it.

The professor was telling the class about how the Canadian government would create an ombudsperson office that would investigate complaints against Canadian companies and their activities abroad that might impact the human rights of the local population. He also happened to be the author of the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights.

“And as he is describing this new position,” says Meyerhoffer, “I’m saying to myself, ‘My God, that’s my job!’ So, after the class I went up to him and asked him how do I get it.”

Two years later, when the idea turned into reality, Meyerhoffer became the country’s first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, using her 13 years of experience in human rights, the rule of law and international governance, and 17 years as a lawyer in the oil and gas industry. Not only is it a Canadian first, but it’s also the first position of its type in the world.

The office, a 2015 Liberal campaign pledge, was announced in January 2018, but its roots go back further, to the Harper Conservative government, Meyerhoffer says. Following a couple of postponements in the last year due to COVID-19, the office is accepting complaints. CORE will have the power to mediate disputes, launch investigatory reviews of complaints, report its findings publicly and recommend a course of action.

Meyerhoffer has worked in Bhutan, Bolivia, Cuba, China, India, Jamaica, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia and the USA. She has a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan and is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School with a master’s degree in Public Administration and a Certificate in Management, Leadership and Decision Sciences.

In March, Meyerhoffer announced that her office is open to receive complaints of possible human rights abuses arising from the operations abroad of Canadian companies in mining, oil and gas, and the garment sectors. A new, easy-to-use online form is the foundation of the CORE’s complaint process, she says. Anyone with internet access can now lodge a complaint, but the complainant can send it by email, voice mail or even traditional mail.

The idea, Meyerhoffer says, is to work to resolve human rights disputes as early as possible, with a heavy emphasis on mediation. CORE is also required to issue public reports on their findings and is empowered to make remedial recommendations to the Minister of International Trade.

The office can’t compel information, but it can “name and shame” companies when it publishes findings on a complaint, with the level of information released depending on whether a complaint is mediated or if stakeholders request certain information not be published. The office will also have “know and show” power to tell companies what they ought to be doing to prevent human-rights abuses.

Meyerhoffer says the mandate of the ombudsperson is to:

  •  Promote the implementation of the U.N. guiding principles and the OECD guidelines
  • Advise Canadian companies on their practices and policies about responsible business conduct
  • Review a complaint submitted by or on behalf of an individual, organization or community concerning an alleged human rights abuse
  • Review, on the ombudsperson’s initiative, any alleged human rights abuse
  • Offer informal mediation services
  • Provide advice to the minister on any matter relating to their mandate, including issues related to the responsible business conduct of Canadian companies operating abroad

Meyerhoffer admits it was a circuitous route the being the world’s first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. But each of the steps on that road gave her the tools needed to straddle the worlds of extractive industries and labour-intensive businesses and the need to embrace the human rights of the local population.

After graduating from law school, Meyerhoffer started as an associate with Howard Mackie (now Borden, Ladner, Gervais), specializing in the oil and gas sector. She then became legal counsel of business development for Amoco Canada Petroleum Company (now BP Canada Energy Company Ltd.), then went to the lobby group the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in the role of Manager of Environment and Operations.

After that, Meyerhoffer spent several years self-employed, working as a consultant in locations ranging from Calgary to Cuba. At the latter location, she liaised with Cuban government agencies to determine the availability of potential Cuban oil and gas opportunities, and translated Cuban laws and regulations related to foreign investment from Spanish to English.

Her next move was to Ottawa in 2006, where she worked with the Canadian Bar Association, starting in 2007 in various project management and communications roles. Among the highlights was implementing a $1.8-million collaboration between the bar association and the Nepal Bar Association, financed by the Canadian government. She provided the Nepal association with technical and other resources to support the development of processes to engage women and other socially excluded groups more effectively and enhance the NBA’s participation in developing Nepal’s constitution.

Meyerhoffer spent close to five years in Nepal on the bar association project. So, when the funding for the project ended, Meyerhoffer set up shop in Nepal as a consultant. Her clients included the Embassy of Switzerland in Nepal, United Nations development programs and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).  Around this time, approximately 2011, she also created Women Lawyers Joining Hands. It is a charitable organization with a mission to educate, train, coach and mentor women lawyers in developing countries, starting with Nepal, and provide them with scholarships, bursaries, awards and other forms of financial assistance.

Meyerhoffer eventually became the head of mission for IDEA in Nepal. This intergovernmental organization supports sustainable democracy worldwide, holding that position between 2014 and 2017, when she decided to go to Harvard.

After graduating from the Kennedy School, Meyerhoffer kept herself busy with contract work in the U.S., all the while keeping a close eye on the job posting and interview process for the ombudsperson job. The Canadian government posted the job in 2018, and after a lengthy interview process, it finally came to fruition for Meyerhoffer in the spring of 2019.

Meyerhoffer says there are important reasons that Canada should have an ombudsperson’s office looking at complaints that involve Canadian companies abroad. She notes that about 60 per cent of mining companies working outside their home jurisdiction are Canadian or at least registered in Canada. “So, if there is a company mining overseas, there is a high probability it will be Canadian. And if something goes wrong, there’s a Canadian flag on it.” It is vital, Meyerhoffer says, that there be some mechanism for ensuring that the Canada brand doesn’t get sullied by potential bad actors or from those who didn’t understand the local rules. Of particular concern to the position is the potential abuse of human rights.

“This is a crucial step forward in our mission to help promote and protect human rights and Canada’s reputation in the world,” she says. “I am really confident we make this work and that it will have a positive impact, and that we will influence the behaviour of companies.”

Some human rights group and corporate accountability organizations have said CORE is similar to past government offices lacking the teeth to prevent abuses overseas, Emily Dwyer, coordinator at the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability has said.

“Without independent investigatory powers the CORE will equally be unfit for purpose,” she told MPs at a House of Commons subcommittee on International Human Rights last February. “Key information that’s crucial to investigations is often held exclusively by companies, and it will not be offered voluntarily.”

However, Meyerhoffer points out that while it is a voluntary program, she expects companies in the targeted sector would want to be part of any mediation process if there were the recipients of human rights complaints, especially if they were brought to the ombudsman’s office before being put on public display.

She notes that in an era of the growing importance of corporate social responsibility, Canada’s ability to invest abroad will be affected by its ability to show that its companies "can keep to high standards in their activities and make sure rights are not abused."

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